US$1 trillion plus still tied up in working capital despite modest improvements
London, 31 May 2011 – Companies in both the US and Europe managed to improve working capital performance in 2010 compared with 2009, with the key measure of cash-to-cash (C2C) dropping by 2% and 4%, respectively, according to Ernst & Young’s latest Annual Working Capital Management Survey.
This year’s analysis shows that the 2,000 companies in the survey still have an aggregate total of US$1.1 trillion in cash unnecessarily tied up in working capital. This is equivalent to nearly 7% of their sales, a similar figure to 12 months ago.
The level of improvement, however, remained limited. These results are in contrast with those reported a year before, when C2C increased by 6% in the US and 3% in Europe in 2009 compared with 2008.
As Steve Payne, Americas head of Working Capital Management at Ernst & Young explains, “Despite a solid recovery in the global economy in 2010 American companies regained just a fraction of the ground lost in the prior year, with gains coming entirely from payables (suggesting that some companies are still choosing to stretch terms with their main suppliers). Europe returned to a level of performance which was only marginally better than in 2008.”
Performance by sector
In both the US and Europe, cyclical industries, such as automotive supply, chemicals, diversified industrials, semiconductors and steel, achieved significant progress in reducing levels of working capital in 2010, making up most of the ground lost of the previous year.
These results were achieved in the context of a much better year than expected in terms of sales growth for those industries, affected, however, in some cases, by supply constraints and extended lead times.
Among non-cyclical industries, in both the US and Europe, food producers reported strong working capital results (C2C down 2% and 13%, respectively), supported by much higher days payable outstanding or DPO, notably on the back of progress made in extending payment terms as well as commodity costs inflation. Performance in receivables and inventories were more varied across both regions, with European companies reporting improvement in both areas in contrast with their US peers.
For food and general retailers, working capital results were poor, with C2C rising 3% and 8%, respectively in the US and Europe. This follows significant improvement the year before. Inventory performance deteriorated while receivables and payables results were mixed.
For pharmaceuticals, European companies posted much better results (C2C down 6%) than their peers in the US (C2C up 1%), mostly due to a stronger performance in receivables.
In contrast with last year’s significant deterioration, the oil industry in both regions registered a large improvement in working capital performance. This was mostly on the back of much improved inventory performance. The magnitude of the change was also exaggerated by the relatively low level of working capital inherent in the nature of the business.
And by region
The working capital performance gap between the US and Europe has been tightening in the last two years, with Europe closing the gap with the US.
This latter trend can be attributed to the global footprint of corporations, increased impact of globalization of trade, industry consolidation and concentration of demand. Common working capital leading practices have also been spreading steadily across regions.
However as Steve explains, “US-headquartered companies still exhibit much lower levels of WC than those based in Europe. Overall C2C for the US in 2010 was four days, or 9% below that of Europe.”
The outlook for 2011 and beyond
For the immediate future businesses face considerable headwinds in working capital management as Jon Morris, EMEIA head of Working Capital Management at Ernst & Young explains: “The levels of cash tied up in WC will increase to support increased business activity and improved prospects. The lag effect of higher commodity prices on business operations suggests a much greater impact on WC performance in 2011 than in 2010.”
Growth in emerging markets poses challenges to corporations associated with the inefficiency and risks of some of these local businesses. The global downturn of 2008, recent events in Japan and more generally higher volatility and unpredictability in demand have highlighted the complexity and vulnerability of supply chains to internal and external business disruptions.
With corporate liquidity much improved (powered by rising margins, moderate growth in capital expenditure and accommodative financial conditions), there is also a danger that management attention will once again move away from cash and working capital management, and towards driving revenues and bottom line, pursuing acquisitions and returning cash to shareholders.
Jon says, “With many global economic and financial market challenges still remaining unaddressed, compounded by recent commodity price developments, it is therefore critical for companies to continue implementing truly effective working capital management strategies.”
Notes to editors
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